- Words, Space, and the Audience: The Theatrical Tension between Empiricism and Rationalism by Michael Y. Bennett
Michael Y. Bennett’s Words, Space, and the Audience begins as an investigation of the title’s three theatrical elements and the ways they make meaning in the theatre. Citing the ideas of Gay McAuley, Bert O. States, and Richard Bauman, Bennett examines the “ever-present tension between empirical and rational ways of understanding a play” (8). Bennett uses these explorations and examinations to determine how much of an audience’s understanding emanates from “new, a posteriori, sensory experiences,” and how much arises from “reason and a priori knowledge” (11). Bennett structures his book around four canonical plays and offers historical and philosophical context for each, paying close attention to the ways contemporary intellectual energies infiltrated them. The results are mixed, as he occasionally strays from his thesis and often relies very heavily upon literary close readings of the plays’ texts. Still, Bennett’s work proves to be a valuable contribution for charting the overlap between philosophy and theatre, [End Page 296] an overlap that could prove elucidating to scholars of dramatic literature and reception theorists alike.
Bennett takes considerable care in chapter 1 to model the substructure he will employ in subsequent chapters, mapping the philosophical and historical terrain Oscar Wilde traversed and surveyed in writing The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome. Bennett most successfully achieves what his thesis promises in this first chapter, as he blends discussions of British Idealism, Sartre’s notion of “bad faith” (plucked from his Being and Nothingness), Bauman’s “consciousness of doubleness” in performance, and the spectator’s gaze to “examine the performance of being or not being” (17, 42). Bennett capably analyzes the shifting ontology of the plays’ primary protagonists through close readings of the playtexts, augmented by brief discussions of a pair of relatively recent productions. If Bennett’s book has one overarching weakness, it is the paucity of such performance analyses. This is not an insignificant deficiency, considering that “space” and “audience”—as two of the primary makers of meaning in performance and production—are suggested mainly through philosophical invocation, rather than descriptions and evocations of embodied practice. Bennett does not engage consistently enough with the work of States and McAuley, which would have proven indispensible in connecting Bennett’s philosophical project with theatre practice, both past and present.
When Bennett does offer production/performance examples, however, they are provocative and most closely approach his stated purpose in the introduction. One example is his discussion of three different productions of Waiting for Godot in chapter 3. Bennett triangulates the three productions to underscore the theatrical tension between being and doing, figuring these two poles as separate methods for the construction of competing ontologies, which he associates with rationalism and empiricism, respectively (91–92). Additionally, in chapter 4, Bennett briefly discusses two productions of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Unlike his discussion of Waiting for Godot, however, Bennett’s choice of citations in this chapter mainly highlights thematic differences in the productions rather than focusing the reader’s attention on the production’s use of space and gesture as he did in chapter 3. As such, his analysis in chapter 4 remains relatively unmoored from theatrical practice. This is not to say his insights are without merit, rather they simply rely too heavily upon what the text may suggest about embodied performance practice and thus often slip into speculation.
Much of what occupies Bennett throughout are his efforts to translate the philosophical environments of each time period—late Victorian England, post–World War I Italy, post–World War II France, and the United States during the Cold War—into the two philosophical camps to which the title and introduction [End Page 297] refer. Much of the book, in fact, is occupied with this recurrent theoretical gesture as philosophers and philosophies such as Hume, Hegel, Sartre, Camus, Austin, neo-Hegelians, positivism, Wittgenstein, and pragmatism are ushered into these two opposing camps. The...